The Fiat 500e makes you smile. Whether as a driver, a passenger, or even a spectator this little retro nod to the 1950s cinquecento is, simply put, a huge hit, as I have discovered driving the car in and around London on a fine September weekend. The face is friendly, almost cheeky, the proportions petit and the form curvy without being cutesy. The design neither intimidates nor irritates. Which, considering its lean-emission pure-electric set-up, seems to me to be an ideal expression for an urban commuter in the modern era.
The 500 story began in 1957 when Fiat launched it as the Nuovo (new) 500. Affectionately referred to as the cinquecento, this tiny little affordable city run-around was to become a symbol of its time, of the sixties’ youth and of a newly prospering post-war Italy. The 500 was all about “Made in Italy” or more accurately “Made in Turin”, Italy’s motor manufacturing hub. Production ceased in 1975, but Fiat decided to relaunch its tiny car in 2007 with a bit more room and a design that openly paid homage to the Nuovo, taking care to be just the right side of retro-styling without feeling too cheesy. And it worked – for the car has been a huge success for the marque.
Fast-forward to today and Fiat finds itself in an entirely different place — on the global auto map, that is. At the start of this year, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) and France’s Group PSA (which included Peugeot and Citroën) merged, with the resulting company, Stellantis, becoming the world’s fourth largest carmaker. Much investment is planned for all the various brands within the group that includes Maserati and Alfa Romeo. Naturally, the focus will be on electrification and reducing overall waste and carbon emissions within the operations.
This is where the 500e comes in. The first fully electric car from Fiat can be bought as a fixed roof hatch or soft-top cabrio. The car has been entirely redesigned for its electric format to be 6cm wider and 6cm longer than the one it replaces; the wheelbase has been extended by 2cm, while the wheels are larger and set further apart for greater cabin comfort. Nothing about the 500e is aggressive, which complements the electric drivetrain. The front bumper honors the 1957 Nuovo’s, as do the new light clusters which evolve the round look of the original with added LED technology, while the door handles are flush with the bodywork, which presumably also helps with the car’s overall aerodynamics.
Inside the 500e is clear and uncluttered and feels much like an electric gadget. The dashboard is wide and contains only the essential driving functions designed as buttons and clearly marked D, R, P and so on. There is more leg and shoulder space for occupants, lots of modular storage spaces between the two front seats where the gear lever was originally located, while the flat floor houses the batteries without compromising the luggage compartment capacity.
The car loaned to me is the “Icon” hatch, which benefits from an expansive glass sunroof that floods daylight inside the cabin. What I also like are the sustainable fabric ideas on offer to include seats made of Seaqual yarn with plastic recovered from the sea and an eco-alternative to leather, which features on the steering wheel of this car.
The 500e is the first car in its class to have level two autonomous driving. The advanced tech includes a front-facing camera monitoring all areas of the car, intelligent adaptive cruise control to brake or accelerate in response to other road users and a lane centering system to keep the vehicle in place. Special sensors read and recommend speed limits and ultrasonic sensors monitor the blind spots and warn of obstacles. Elsewhere, attention assist will nudge the driver if it senses you dozing off, while 360-degree sensors provide a drone-like view to avoid obstacles when parking.
The car’s lithium-ion batteries offer a capacity of 42kWh and a range of up to 199 miles. Battery time, of course, depends on driving conditions and driving style. Delivered to us with around 80% charge and driven extensively, the 500e on test doesn’t require any charging during our weekend. The car is equipped with an 85kW fast charge system, which takes five minutes to build up a sufficient energy reserve to travel 30 miles, a handy option, while using a fast charger can power the battery to 80% in just 35 minutes.
To drive, the 500e is effortless, its tiny size making it super fun to maneuver through London. There are three driving modes to choose from: “Normal” is self-explanatory, “Range” activates a one-pedal-drive function so the car can be driven with the accelerator pedal alone, while “Sherpa” optimizes the available resources to reduce fuel consumption to a minimum in case of a battery emergency. The electric motor offers instant acceleration and with an output of 87kW, it provides a maximum speed of 93mph — which, of course, we don’t put the test in the city environment.
Much like the latest MINI Electric, the Fiat 500e is the kind of gadget that can afford to be cheeky with color combinations. Customers can opt for the ready-made styles or, for a little extra, Fiat is offering three special editions made in collaboration with designers Giorgio Armani, Bvlgari and Kartell.
Crucially, the 500e price has been been kept reasonably low — my “Icon”, for instance, without all the extra specs and gadgets is priced at only £27,000 (around $37,000). As a side not, it does make you wonder why so many other brands make their less expensive cars almost purposely austere and ugly. It need not be that way.
We take our Fiat 500e for a drive through central London and to areas normally with restrictions for combustion cars. We wiz through the tightest and narrowest of city streets and the cobbled lanes of Soho where restaurants and bars have since the pandemic spilt on to the streets. We move slowly and silently through the heavy human traffic around Trafalgar Square and dodge a small group protesting Covid vaccinations, glide through the deserted City of London and cross over the river Thames across the historical bridges.
At every stage, people stop and stare and point and smile. On our way home, parked up on Portobello Road, I hop out to grab a bite and return to a group of all ages surrounding the car asking my husband for details. It is an animated sight more at home perhaps in Italy than London.
Best of all, as a nod other Italian icons, the electric 500e’s pedestrian warning system (mandatory at speeds up to 12mph) is a sound clip by Nino Rota taken from Federico Fellini’s brilliant Amarcord. And it returns as a sign-off when we turn off the engine at the end of our drive. A nostalgic ending.
See my interview with the FCA design boss to include Fiat Klaus Busse here